OPEN communication is one of the best and proven means of protecting children and preventing further incidents of child sexual abuse. More specifically, open communication between parents/caregivers and children remains key in the battle for the protection of children, particularly child sexual abuse and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, ChildLinK Inc. and Blossom Inc. received 104 referrals of child sexual abuse (CSA) cases in the first three months. Both agencies partner with the Childcare and Protection Agency (CPA) and the Guyana Police Force to provide forensic interviews, trauma-focused therapy, and parenting-skills education to victims of CSA and their parents/caregivers. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in Guyana, a number of the reported cases of child sexual abuse were first disclosed to trusted adults such as teachers, or to social workers who visited schools to sensitise children and teachers about CSA. One of the main reasons this was important and had some effect is that a significant percentage of reported incidents of CSA occur in the home where the alleged perpetrators easily have access to children. What has been helpful during the pandemic is that parents, especially mothers and aunts, have been instrumental in supporting victims to report cases of child sexual abuse.
Over the past 10 years, several agencies have made a concerted effort to increase awareness of child sexual abuse. The TELL campaign, which was developed by the Ministry of Social Protection and UNICEF, focused on encouraging disclosure of child sexual abuse. ChildLinK collaborated with the Ministry of Education to deliver the
TELL campaign across all 10 administrative regions. The TELL campaign had six key messages that targeted primary schoolchildren:
1. It is not okay to keep abuse a secret
2. Do not be afraid to tell someone; it is not your fault
3. It is wrong for someone to touch your private parts
4. You need to tell someone if you were abused
5. Tell a trusted adult everything: who, what, where, and when
6. Promise to tell a trusted adult
These simple messages to children have resulted in a significant increase in reporting of child sexual abuse over the years. Anyone, including parents, can use these messages to help protect their children from child sexual abuse. All parents must be aware that child sexual abuse can happen to any child– including your child. Parents, it is important that you understand that you are only able to take action to protect your children when you know what is going on in the life of your child. Although it has become more difficult with social media to manage or know more about your children’s activities, it has become more critical for parents to give children the assurance and confidence to TELL if they are being abused, or if they are uncomfortable with a conversation or with being touched by someone.
Many children still experience a commanding and domineering tone and the ‘conversation’ is usually one-sided from parents when it comes to what children should NOT do. The conversation of how your child can be protected from sexual abuse needs to include what you and your child can do and it is an on-going conversation that can be taught through every-day experiences. Allow room in your conversations with your children for them to confide in you or TELL you or share information that will support their protection.
Helping to protect your child requires you to teach your child about child abuse and how to protect themselves in your absence. We all know the old saying, “If the child did not learn, then the parent (in this case) did not teach.” In one case reported to ChildLinK, a parent regularly and sternly insisted that her child in her early teens should refrain from sexual activity. The parent’s approach was aggressive and focused on what the child should NOT do. There was very little guidance on the types of activities that will support refraining from early sexual activities. This same parent would send her child, who just became a teen, to overnight regularly at her friend. Sometime later, the young teen was sexually abused in one of the night-out activities. The young teen felt responsible for the abuse because the parent supported the “night-out” events. She found it very difficult to confide in the parent. In this incident, the parent did not consider all that could take place during these “night outs.” Her child was unprepared to say no and to assess the dangers of what is likely to happen in the situation. In another home, a child was being sexually abused by someone in the home. The child did not tell the parent. Out of frustration, she ran away from home one evening. The following day, the child went to the police station and made a report. One would ask, how is it possible that a parent can be in the home with their child and not know that the other adult is sexually abusing the child? Further, to protect herself, the child had to defy the COVID- 19 precautions and head to the police herself.
Many parents are not aware of sexual grooming. Sexual abuse of your child generally does not happen overnight; as such, child sexual abuse is not limited to sexual penetration. Sexual grooming is considered sexual abuse, according to the Sexual Offences Act 2010. Sexual grooming occurs in most CSA cases. The perpetrator communicates with a child with the intention to manipulate that child into establishing a sexual relationship. Offenders/perpetrators are having easier access to your child for sexual grooming through social media platforms such as Whatsapp and Facebook during the COVID-19 lockdown period. Of course, these perpetrators will encourage your child to keep their conversations a secret from their parents.
Again, this is difficult for many parents as children are on the phones for learning sessions; thus, parents have to know about some of the social media platforms and also to help manage the time your child is spending on social media. One perpetrator started grooming a child even before she was a teen and now that he is ready to make his move she was ‘helping’ him by hiding the messages he sends to the mobile phone. This phone is used by others in her family, so whilst she knows that these are not messages that she wants other family members to see, she also now believes that the perpetrator cares for her, that he likes her and that he will not do anything to hurt her. Hiding the messages is her way of keeping and protecting a special friend who “understands” her, unlike her parents, who “don’t understand” her. Perpetrators use these every-day situations to groom children. In many instances, it is really just up to you parents to not only monitor your children’s online activities but to also establish a trusting relationship with your child built on open communication; one that helps the child to understand and recognise child sexual abuse and one where they can feel safe to confide and TELL you